MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Il Divo, Z, Whatever Works, Nothing Like the Holidays, The Orphan and more…

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs(Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Carlos Saldanha, Mike Thurmeier, 2009

Are those Ice Age wedding bells breaking up that old gang of mine? Are they singing Splitsville to that jolly prehistoric Ice Age wild bunch composed of a fearsomely popular digitally animated woolly mammoth and his mammoth-babe, a clownish sloth, and a suave saber-toothed tiger wandering around in some mad cartoon mish-mash of prehistory?

Not exactly. But, watching Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, you can feel the original premise, novelty and fun of the first 2002 Ice Age movie — which I though was enjoyable and dynamic in a ’50s Looney Tunes-Chuck Jones-ish sort of way — all begin to stretch to the snapping point. The creators, especially the writers, don‘t have many fresh ideas, except to pop in a feisty little swashbuckling weasel named Buck (Simon Pegg voicing) modeled on Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean — and to have John Leguizamo’s spazzy sloth Sid go papa-mama-mad at the parenthood of woolly mammoths Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah). Sid then runs paternally amok, eggnapping three T. Rex eggs, with predictably dire-dino results.

Family fever drenches the entire plot. Even the series’ unfailing scene and credits stealer, acorn-craving squirrelly Scrat (voiced by original co-director Chris Wedge) has a Scratte (Karen Disher), to ring his bells. And the movie‘s big action scene is borrowed from eternal mom Lillian Gish crossing the ice floes of Way Down East (and that scene‘s innumerable imitators), a movie D. W. Griffith shot back in 1920. That wasn’t exactly in the Ice Age, but then neither were any dinosaurs.

Ice Age doesn’t suffer from the usual malady of big hit movie franchise sequels. It doesn’t repeat the 2002 Ice Age Three Godfathers story-line (with Manny, Sid and Denis Leary‘s Diego the Tiger transporting a man-baby back to its people) all over again. Instead, the characters keep progressing and getting on with their lives. We learn what happens when mammoths get lovey-dovey and turn mommy and daddy. New funny animals picked up in Ice Age 2: the Meltdown — Josh Peck and Seann William Scott as Eddie and Crash, the daffiest possums this side of Pogo‘s drunken uncle Poo-goo — show up and change a little too.

And of course the dinosaurs crash in and begin wreaking havoc, though what these dino-dudes are doing in or on the fringes of the Ice Age is anybody‘s guess — unless they’ve been dropped into a time warp by the Land of the Lost gang.

I don’t mean to imply that an animated feature about prehistoric beasts should have the historical verisimilitude of a Discovery Channel documentary. But Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs often feels too domesticated and suburbanized for its own good — as if we were heading for an Ice Age 4 where Manny and Sid battle it out for P.T.A. president. That may be why the notably non-family adventurer, Buck the buccaneer, gets such a prominent place, reminding us of the bachelor action the guys used to have. This movie, technically well executed and sort of saucy, isn’t much of a show. But I guess it’s okay entertainment for kids, teen Ice Age fans, some parents and even those few wooly mammoths, saber tooth tigers or sloths who might be wandering through the multiplex — yearning for the good old non-dino-days.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Il Divo (Four Stars)
Italy; Paolo Sorrentino, 2008 (MPI Home Video)

Veteran Italian actor Toni Servillo‘s craggy wise-hood face — as impassive and immobile as a dentist staring into your mouth or a panther regarding its prey — is at the center of a jaw-dropping whirlpool of bloody events and political crime, portrayed or exposed in Il Divo (subtitled The Extraordinary Life of Giulio Andreotti). Paolo Sorrentino’s amazingly audacious and stylish bio-drama about seven-time Christian Democrat Italian prime minister and center right icon Andreotti charts his alleged involvement in official corruption, Mafia co-projects, and, disturbingly, a number of mysterious deaths. Included in that whack-list, the film suggests, are at least some moral culpability for the murder of his predecessor and political rival Aldo Moro by Italy’s Red Brigade in the ‘70s, and some responsibility in a string of hits and assassinations that conveniently eliminated other Andreotti rivals or nemeses.

The real-life Andreotti is the inspiration for a great scary, deadpan performance by Servillo, who also appeared in that other recent scorcher of an Italian true-life crime saga, Gomorrah. Il Divo packs the same kind of charge; it’s a jolting, beautifully made, sardonic shockwave of a movie.

Sorrentino, like Matteo Garrone in Gomorrah, doesn’t make any bones about his own political sympathies or his opinions about Andreotti and his guilt or innocence. (The P.M. was convicted of numerous crimes, then acquitted by a higher court.) Sorrentino, Servillo and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi slam the ex-Prime Minister with one sphinx-like, dead-eyed close-up and damning torrent of facts after another.

The whole film, concentrating on Andreotti‘s seventh and last ruling term (1991-92), is shot in a dynamic and visually stunning moving camera style that irresistibly recalls Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Oliver Stone’s early political exposes. Il Divo also has the lay-it-on the-line feel of that devastating, cheeky title credit in Costa Gavras’ Z (see below) when the director, and writer Jorge Semprun, announced to the world that any similarity to real life people or events wasn’t coincidental, but intentional.

Sorrentino goes further. He has Servillo‘s Andreotti confess on camera, and he closes with a chilling scene — another virtuoso long-take tracking shot, following Andreotti into the courtroom and ending on a close-up (sliding into monochrome) of his face — while the narrator ruminates on the politician’s capacity for evil.

This is the kind of audacity that would get a Stone or a Michael Moore indicted for irresponsible cine-journalism. Andreotti was, after all, finally acquitted of the many charges against him, albeit suspiciously, and he still sits in the Italian senate as a life member. But Il Divo (the title, which denotes a male “diva,” comes from one of Andreotti‘s many nicknames) isn’t journalism. It’s historical/political drama with a near-Shakespearean ambition and density and Scorsese/Coppola voltage and lyricism.

Sorrentino gives us a cascade of famous names and horrific events — most of which should be familiar to educated Italian audiences if not to movie-going Americans — and then he sweeps us relentlessly through the action with great bravura style, keeping us hip to the characters and their exalted positions, with lively, colorful name-titles. He barely pauses to explain anything. But he doesn’t have to. Bigazzi’s camera constantly pulling forward and back or focusing intently on Servillo’s heavily lined face and basilisk gaze, a mask that never cracks, gives us an instant emotional/moral context that helps “explain” everything that happens. When Servillo’s Andreotti makes his confession, we’re not surprised, except maybe at Sorrentino‘s sheer audacity.

Three great Italian cinematic traditions fuse here: the neo-realism of the ‘50s and ‘60s (Rossellini, De Sica and Olmi), the comic-lyrical vein of Fellini, Monicelli, Scola, and others, and the high operatic political cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s (Rosi, Visconti, Bertolucci), all feeding into this movie’s violent but captivating style (there‘s a bit of Leone too), a style also built on those stunning tracking shots, gorgeous compositions and crackerjack editing.

And the fact that Servillo‘s Andreotti is so blank-faced and immovable, so barren of readable expression or reaction — that he can sit empty-faced and joyless through a wild posh party or tear out the last pages of a mystery novel, so he’ll never know the murderer’s identity — becomes a great cosmic joke, with “Andreotti” as the straight man to a mad, comic, wickedly clownish evil world.

Like Gomorrah, whose writer reportedly needs police protection, Il Divo is a great gutsy movie. Like Goodfellas, The Godfather or Salvatore Giuliani, it overwhelms you. In a way, it ultimately doesn’t matter if the film‘s carefully shaped indictment of Andreotti is totally true or false; that’s something I’ll leave to deeper research — or another court of opinion. This movie — Jury Prize winner at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival — does its job as drama. It pulls us into a world of modern darkness and evil, a weird sleek hell in high places that’s engrossing, unsettling, stunningly credible.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

Z (Four Stars)
France; Costa-Gavras, 1970 (Criterion)

Back in 1969 and 1970, Costa-Gavras‘s Z looked like the hippest, fastest, gutsiest political thriller you could possibly make, and when Gavras and writer Jorge Semprun wrote a credit line that any similarity to real-life events wasn’t coincidental, but intentional, the campus crowds I saw it with, roared their approval. This explosive movie, which present’s Gavras and Semprun’s view of the Lambrakis assassination, and the ascension to power of the tyrannical Greek Colonels, was both an impudent, in-their-faces docudrama and a blistering thriller — and it was exhilarating on both levels. I happen to love Gavras’ earlier forgotten comic film noir The Sleeping Car Murders, and his later Missing, but he never made a better movie than Z. And he probably never will.

Z, based on a roman a clef by Vassilis Vassilikos, is daringly written, excitingly shot and brilliantly acted. Yves Montand (a Sleeping Car vet) and Irene Papas radiate integrity as the victim and his widow, producer Jacques Perrin and Jean Louis Trintingant (two more Sleeping Car alumni) are the intrepid reporter and incorruptible prosecutor (based on a real-life prosecutor who eventually became Greece‘s president) and Renato Salvatore and Marcel Bozzufi are among the gargoylish, malevolent gang of high-level and low-life villains. Z, as Pauline Kael wrote, damned near … blasts you out of your seat — and it’s as much from its sheer political audacity as from its gut-punching thrills and shocks. Daring too is its final coda, which reveals how justice can be transgressed even when the truth will out. Sadly, Colonels of one kind or another are always with us. But Z suggests that at least they can be indicted in the tribunal of the movies.

Extras: Commentary by Peter Cowie; Interviews with Costa-Gavras and cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Archival interviews with Costa-Gavras, Jacques Perrin, Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Pierre Dux, and Vassilis Vassilikos; Trailer; Booklet with Armond White essay and credits.
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PICK OF THE WEEK: BLU-RAY

Visions of Britain and Ireland (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Roy A. Hammond, Sam Toperoff, 2003-7 (Acorn Media)

Includes: Visions of England, Visions of Scotland, Visions of Ireland, and Visions of Wales.

Visions of Italy (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Roy A. Hammond, 2001-2008 (Acorn Media)

Includes: Visions of Italy: Northern Style, Visions of Italy: Southern Style, Visions of Sicily and Visions of Italy: the Great Cities.

One of the most visually stunning travelogue series ever, the Visions sets from WLIW in New York: offer spectacular aerial tours of the great sights of Europe, shot in gorgeous high definition cinematography, accompanied by typical but well-executed music and narration. The entire Visions of Europe set is also available this week in a DVD set (and you may want to wait until that one’s in Blu-Ray). But these earlier Blu-Ray box editions of photographic tours of Britain, Ireland and Italy feature splendidly visualized smaller tours.

Among the many sights seen (from way overhead) here: Dover, Stonehenge, London, Liverpool, Loch Ness, Blarney Castle, The Alps, Florence, Venice, Naples, Pisa, Pompeii, Rome, and St. Peter’s Square. (Watching the Roman set, you can imagine for a while that you’re Marcello Mastroianni’s hedonist/journalist Marcello in La Dolce Vita, swooping over the city in a helicopter.)

Extras: Bonus footage.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SETS

The Samuel Fuller Collection (Four Stars)
U.S.; Sam Fuller & Others, 1937-1961 (Columbia)

Sam Fuller, justly and auteurishly celebrated in this invaluable little anthology of all his Columbia studio writer and directorial credits, was quite a guy. He was not only a master of the crime thriller, film noir, war movie, Western and newspaper drama, and a “King of the B‘s“ (and A’s as well) in the Cahier du Cinema-fueled heyday of the Hollywood auteur.

He was a genuine character: a cigar-chewing, straight-shooting, cheerfully cynical ex-newsman and WW2 vet. He was schooled in combat in the famous First Division, the subject of his 1980 WW2 masterpiece (still unrestored) The Big Red One. And he was an absolutely ace craftsman, a natural storyteller, and a subversive maverick who could easily hop both sides of any fence, explode movie clichés from the inside, and compel your attention with the fervid eloquence of a carny hustler and the street smarts of a wised-up cop. Fuller’s writer-directorial style, packed with salty dialogue, full-blooded acting, elegant long takes, brutal shock cuts, and canny eruptions of violence and sexuality, was a film technique vigorous, riveting, full-throttle, sometimes ferocious — and unmistakably his own.

This box set contains five movies to which Fuller contributed the original story, the novel source, or on which he wrote or co-wrote the script (Shockproof and It Happened in Hollywood), plus two raw, straight-up, Fuller-to-the-bone classics, in which he directed his own screenplay (the cop thriller and interracial romance The Crimson Kimono and the ultra-hard-boiled gangster saga Underworld, U. S. A.). Two of the better movies here join Sam with two other American directorial auteurs and film noir masters, the elegant Douglas Sirk (Shockproof) and hard-hitting Phil Karlson (Scandal Sheet).

Sam was a great storyteller, a great reporter and a soldier who never quit — and all of those qualities simmer and shine through his best movies. This set, a must for true-blue movie-lovers (but not for phonies of any kind, especially fake newspapermen), is a fitting tribute for a tough-guy genius. Wherever he is, we hope the presses are running, the scripts are tight, the studio execs are out of his hair, and the cigars are scrumptious. Go get ’em, Sam.
Includes: It Happened in Hollywood (U.S.; Harry Lachman, 1937). Three Stars. Richard Dix plays a Tom Mix-like silent movie cowboy who suffers from the advent of talkies, but whose heart and aim stay true. Very sentimental, but fun, and lushly shot by a neglected B-level director I like: Harry Lachman, who has a real visual style. (His paintings hang in the Prado and the Chicago Art Institute.) With Fay Wray and some amazing movie star doubles for the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Victor McLaglen, Mae West, Greta Garbo and many others.

Adventure in Sahara (U.S.; D. Ross Lederman, 1938). Two and a Half Stars. A poor man’s Beau Geste with Paul Kelly as a French Foreign Legionnaire looking for revenge and C. Henry Gordon as his sadistic commandant. Power of the Press (U.S.; Lew Landers, 1943) Two and a Half Stars. Trim anti-fascist newspaper melodrama, with rustic but honest publisher Guy Kibbee taking over a big metropolitan daily run by anti-FDR crook/killer Otto Kruger, and edited by the original stage Front Page Hildy Johnson, Lee Tracy.

Shockproof (U.S.; Douglas Sirk, 1949). Three and a Half Stars. Cornel Wilde is a straight-arrow L. A. parole officer crazy about his knockout parolee (Patricia Knight); eventually, they‘re forced into love-on-the-run. Co-writer Fuller and director Sirk may seem an odd couple. But, despite an outlandish happy ending (Shockproof’s last scene should have been cut), this is a high-grade ’40s noir.

Scandal Sheet (U.S.; Phil Karlson, 1952). Three and a Half Stars. Broderick Crawford is a high-powered big city tabloid editor hiding his past, who accidentally kills his ex-wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and then has to put his star crime reporter (John Derek) on the story, assisted by smart sob sister Donna Reed. Another high-grade (‘50s this time) noir with a Big Clock twist and another questionable but happily unsentimental ending. Adapted, from Fuller’s newspaper novel, The Dark Page, by Karlson and co-writer James Poe (who later scripted Sydney Pollack’s terrific movie of Horace McCoy‘s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?).

The Crimson Kimono (U.S.; Sam Fuller, 1959). Two best-buddy Korean War vet L. A. cops (Caucasian Glenn Corbett and Japanese-American James Shigeta), fall out when both fall for a sexy artist (Victoria Shaw), who’s involved in their homicide case: the murder of a striptease dancer. This black and white wide screen noir is very characteristic Fuller, and as good as the better-regarded Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. With Anna Lee, off-type as a salty-tongued drunken painter, and lots of L. A. Little Tokyo street color.

Underworld, U. S. A. (U.S.; Fuller, 1961). Four Stars. Cliff Robertson is Tolly Devlin, a cynical safecracker, who’s out to kill the four criminals whom, as a kid, he saw beating and murdering his dad, three of whom later rose to the top of the crime syndicate. (This was the ‘60s, when The Untouchables was attacked by anti-defamation groups for its Italian gangsters, so none of the mob here are Sicilian or Italian.) This Count of Monte Cristo-like crime drama is Fuller in his prime, at his best and smartest and roughest. It‘s as noir as Pickup on South Street, as tough as The Steel Helmet, as shocking as The Big Red One, as crazy as Shock Corridor.

Extras: Presentations by Tim Robbins, Curtis Hanson (on “The Crimson Kimono”) and Martin Scorsese (on “Underworld, U. S. A.); Documentary “Samuel Fuller, Storyteller,” containing interviews with Scorsese, Hanson, Robbins, Wim Wenders, and Christa and Sam Fuller
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OTHER CURRENT OR RECENT DVD RELEASES

Whatever Works (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Woody Allen, 2009

Twenty years ago, actor-writer-director Woody Allen — and his new film Crimes and Misdemeanors — were celebrated in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times, with an editorial genuflection (a front page package of essays by three theologians discussing Allen’s philosophy and explication of moral issues), a toney package that you might think more suitable for the recent, prestige-drenched winner of a Nobel Prize.

How are the Times-made-mighty fallen. Or pratfallen. Now, in Allen‘s latest movie Whatever Works, the Nobel Prize is used as a running gag. The film’s main character Boris Yellnikov (who isn’t played by Woody, but by Wood-alike Larry David) — a misbegotten soul whose oddball romance with Mississippi-born homeless gal Melody St. Ann Celestine (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is the main plot — keeps being described as string physics specialist who “almost won the Nobel Prize.”

I didn’t really buy the idea that this pop culture-fluent wisecracker, who sounds suspiciously like Woody, was a star physicist. And he didn’t convince me that he was up for the Nobel Prize any more than I thought Alan Rickman (as another, much less amusing smartass misanthrope) was a Nobel awardee in the ridiculous kidnap thriller Nobel Son. But I did buy David as the best Woody-surrogate ever: an utterly disenchanted New Yorker with a bad, funny mouth, who loves Fred Astaire and Beethoven, always sings “Happy Birthday“ in the toilet, dismisses the children whom he teaches chess as “cretins,” and obviously suffers from extreme anaerobia. (That’s the condition of disaffection from happiness, and also the original title of Annie Hall.) Maybe he should have been a TV writer, like Isaac in Manhattan — or like David himself in Seinfeld.

In the movie, Boris leaves his upscale life and wife after a failed suicide attempt, relocates himself as a Chinatown dropout scraping along teaching kids chess, and spends some of his free time talking to the audience, like Alvy Singer in Annie Hall. (Here, the other characters sometimes hear him and think he’s nuts.) Finally, he finds Melody on his doorstep. Charming but lightly learned, she‘s his perfect opposite number, a mix of Holly Golightly, Liza Doolittle, Iris from Taxi Driver, and Daisy Mae Yokum.

And soon, she‘s dragged some more transplanted Mississippians to Manhattan: her seemingly straight-arrow, Christian-rightwing parents Marietta and John (played wittily by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.). Naughty Marietta becomes an avant garde photographer living in a ménage a trois (with two of Boris’ buddies) and homophobic NRA gun-lover John discovers he‘s been a secret Paul Lynde all along.

Get the picture? It’s no wonder Woody, dodging suspicions of another November-May fantasy, has Melody blossom under Boris’ bilious tutelage, and eventually find a younger suitor (Henry Cavill as the absurdly good-looking actor, Randy James), setting up a New Years Eve ending that suggested an irresistible lower-rent, alternative-lifestyle variation on the happy climax on one of Allen‘s best-loved movies, Hannah and Her Sisters.

Just to prove he isn’t a softie, Allen, through David, takes a shot at that other crowd-pleaser, “It’s a Wonderful Life” just before the end — without naming the movie. (Or hitting it.)

Who cares? I liked Whatever Works. It was funny. Whatever has been damned by some for not giving us anything new, but that strikes me as ageism disguised as a love of innovation or novelty. Critics who keep demanding that moviemakers blaze new trails: Aren’t they a little like the Woody of their nightmares, forever chasing younger women and men, and fresh flesh and affairs? What’s wrong with redoing your specialty? Many of the best movies — or books or paintings or pieces of music — are hardly novel. They don’t break off in new directions, as much as they re-explore, refine and re-define old ones.

That’s what Whatever Works does. It reimagines and rescales the terrain Allen already gave us in Manhattan, Hannah, Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Deconstructing Harry and Husbands and Wives. And you know something? We should be happy that it does. What should we expect from an artist in his 70s? Faust? We should be glad that he’ s still working, still writing and directing, still prolific, still dreaming up one-liners and even still having romantic fantasies, even if they’re not complete with fantasy roles for himself any more.

Film history is packed with examples of later works by major filmmakers that were wrongly downgraded at first and later evaluated upwards — and some of them are by Woody Allen, including Husbands and Wives and Sweet and Lowdown. And though it bothers me that Allen doesn’t appear (or even narrate) on screen any more — imagine the reviews he would have gotten if he‘d dared to play Boris, a limping, foul mouthed geezer who gets hitched to a teen dream vixen — it doesn’t really damage this movie. David delivers Allen‘s nastiest, funniest lines as if he’d made them up. Besides, according to Variety, Allen actually wrote this part, over three decades ago, not for himself but for Zero Mostel (who would have been terrific in it.)

As for Evan Rachel Wood, she pushes her dramatic intensity into a comic mold very successfully, suggesting sweetness, ignorance and mental and emotional liveliness, while performing the interesting romantic dream function of suggesting both the Mariel Hemingway and Diane Keaton characters in Manhattan. She‘s both the faithful innocent and later the faithless semi-sophisticate. Or, to embroider the Pygmalion metaphor, she may be a Mariel whom Boris, perhaps unwisely, educates into a Diane. (Would Keaton have been Zero‘s costar back in the ‘70s?) It’s a fine, raunchy job, though, at the start, she flails and flaps her hands around a little too much, and too calculatedly. Clarkson, meanwhile, does a painfully funny job as Marietta, a know-it-all dame irritating and obnoxious, as well as funny, with all the unbraked destructiveness of a true naïve artist.

However much we would have liked to hear Zero Mostel — or Allen — read these lines, David cracks Woody’s verbal whips with merciless relish. The sarcastic writer-guru of Seinfeld and the actor-writer-guru of Curb Your Enthusiasm, may never have convinced me he was a physicist. But David gets his laughs and Allen even gives him a poignant Chaplinesque close-up when Boris discovers (Spoiler alert for the rest of this graph and the one after it) that Melody is going to leave him.

For me though, the movie would have worked better if melody didn’t end up with Randy James — an unlikable character for all his looks — but instead left Randy afterwards for a younger, Woodier type. Anyway, I couldn’t help suspecting that Boris, was being partly punished by a too easy acceptance of all those Woodyphobes who have expressed such distaste for watching the older Allen, or Allen surrogates, cavort with younger women. This move suggests that Allen is paying the piper, at least on screen. But, of course, Whatever Works is only a movie. And, for me, it works.

Still, I would like to see him acting in a movie again. What about Woody as a combination of Henny Youngman and King Lear? Or Woody as an elder Groucho Marx type, estranged from his brothers (including Gene Wilder as Harpo)? Woody as a Manhattan Don Quixote, lost in L. A., with Seth Rogen as Sancho Panza? Woody as a Philip Roth type accused of plagiarizing a lost manuscript by Norman Mailer (played by Al Pacino) and Gore Vidal (played by Frank Langella). Woody as the Old Man and the Sea — obsessed with killing the Macy’s Parade Snoopy balloon. Woody as…Oh Hell, I don’t know. Whatever works.

Nothing Like the Holidays (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Alfredo De Villa

Another good cast — including Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Pena, Freddy Rodriguez, John Leguizamo, Luis Guzman, Debra Messing, and Vanessa Ferlito — has been assembled for this Latino community Humboldt Park variation on the kind of Christmas family ensemble comedy-drama we’ve seen many times before, and that Arnaud Desplechin handled so beautifully this year in the French “A Christmas Tale.” Every scene is lively. Every performance is sharp. And, as the angry mama, Elizabeth Pena has never been better.

But, toward party’s end, the script gets too, um, obvious. Reality suffers, and, despite the good will “Holidays” builds up, so does the movie. Feliz Navidad to this whole cast, though.

The Orphan (Two Stars)
U. S.; Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009

The Orphan, is a shrieker that tries to have a soul, but just winds up with another batch of frozen, bloody dead bodies sliced and diced to order. It’s a horror movie about an outwardly smiling but inwardly sinister adopted little girl who wreaks havoc in an affluent family with a tragic past. And the moviemakers, with middling success, try to graft the dark mood and surly styles of the family shockers The Stepfather and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle onto the evil-little-girl melodrama of The Bad Seed.

But though Orphan boasts some strong acting, especially by Vera Farmiga and (more erratically) Peter Sarsgaard as the troubled parents Kate and John Coleman (she‘s suspicious; he’s susceptible), and by adorable little Aryana Engineer as good little girl Max — as well as an incredible young villainess turn by Isabelle Fuhrman as bad little Esther, the orphan from hell, and a genuine blood-chilling shockeroo surprise toward the end — I didn’t like it much.

The scenario, by scriptwriter David Leslie Johnson and Alex Mace, is predictable stuff, until the writer and director pull their toward-the-end twist; then disappointingly, it gets predictable again. In the beginning, as we watch, in supposed paranoid, paralyzed fright, Little Orphan Lizzie is plucked from the adoption lists by skittish Kate and obtuse John, after a traumatic Coleman accident, loss and bloody nightmare sequence. But Liz soon proves cold consolation. Beneath her Angel face, she’s manipulative, sneaky, deceptive and murderous: a more sophisticated, continental and even seductive version of Bad Seed’s pig-tailed killer-tot Patty McCormack.

As Max and older brother Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) discover more and more that’s dangerously awry about Esther, and as Kate investigates her by Internet and John fatuously denies everything (like a right wing TV commentator trying to rationalize Iraq, the crash or Dick Cheney), things get more and more out of hand, until all Last House on the Left hell breaks loose in the last act.

It’s a classy movie in some ways (the roster of producers includes both Joel Silver and Leonardo DiCaprio), with better actors and acting than we usually get in shows like this. But for most of its length, director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) gives it an ugly, creepy look that doesn’t feel right, as if we’d gotten somehow trapped in the bad little girl’s head instead of her feisty but fearful mom’s. I also found credulous papa John, as played by the usually reliable and dependably smart Sarsgaard, to be a too-shockingly gullible ignoramus, at least about Esther. (Margo Martindale plays a more believably duped counselor.)

It’s hard to over-praise Fuhrman though. She has an incredibly hard assignment, and brings it off almost spotlessly well. But, if they’d really wound us up tight in their gory story, I wouldn’t have felt, as I did, that she, and we, were being sort of exploited.

Wonder Bar (Three Stars)
U.S.; Lloyd Bacon/Busby Berkeley, 1934 (Warner Archive)

Al Jolson is Al Wonder, who runs a popular, risqué Paris cabaret and acts as paterfamilias to a troupe of singing, dancing and romancing show people that includes tenor/bandleader Dick Powell, and dancers Dolores Del Rio and Ricardo Cortez (They’re no Ginger and Fred) and an audience that includes faithless socialite wife Kay Francis and good-time tourists Guy Kibbee and Hugh (“Woo Woo!“) Herbert. One of the craziest of the Warner Brothers Busby Berkeley-choreographed musicals, this one boasts Jolson in the most outrageous blackface number (“Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule”) I‘ve ever seen. Jolson’s star was fading, but he’s a sockeroo singer again. And both of the big Busby numbers are unforgettable, one for its schmaltzy elegance (“Don‘t Say Good Night“), the other for its flabbergasting racism (“Mule“).

OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT BOX SETS

The William Castle Film Collection (Three Stars)
U.S.; William Castle, 1959-63 (Columbia)

William Castle’s movies were never too hot or cool, Strait-Jacket, House on Haunted Hill and When Strangers Marry (an RKO “B” admired by Orson Welles, Manny Farber and James Agee) to the contrary. But he knew how to show audiences a good time, with a parade of in-theatre show bizzy gimmicks for his mostly cheesy horror movies that included insurance policies against death by fright, electro-tingling seats, flying monsters assaulting patrons through Castle’s exclusive process Emergo, suddenly visible ghosts in Illusiono, Punishment Polls, and even some free candy.

What a showman! That’s why though, in good conscience, I can’t give any of the movies in this Castle box more than two and a half stars — except maybe The Tingler, which John Waters calls the best movie ever made (What about Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!)– the whole set, which includes a good doc on Castle, seems to me a lot of fun. If you have no patience for bad movies, or flying skeletons and electric seat-shockers, look elsewhere. And remember, the cigar chomping Castle produced one masterpiece, Rosemary‘s Baby. And he peddled a lot of insurance, though none of his patrons ever died of fright. (All movies are U.S. productions.)

Includes: 13 Frightened Girls (William Castle, 1963). One Star. Schoolgirls and spies, with Murray Hamilton and Judy Pace. 13 Ghosts (Castle, 1960) Two Stars. The 13 appear, one by one, through the magic of Illusiono. With Martin Milner, Donald Woods and Rosemary DeCamp. Homicidal (Castle, 1961). Two Stars. A blatant Psycho rip-off, with Jean Arless and Glenn Corbett. Strait-jacket (Castle, 1963). Two and a Half Stars. Joan Crawford, back from the asylum. Both Psycho and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are here ripped and hacked off, not to mention the heads of George Kennedy and others. With Diane Baker and Leif Erickson; script by Robert Bloch.

The Old Dark House (Castle, 1962). Two and a Half Stars. Remake of the James Whale-J. P. Priestley classic, against which it pales. With Tom Poston, Robert Morley and Joyce Grenfell.

Mr. Sardonicus” (Castle, 1961). Two Stars. Foggy old London and Castle’s Punishment Poll. With Oscar Homolka and Guy Rolfe; script by Playboy magazine‘s Ray Russell. The Tingler (Castle, 1959). Two and a Half Stars. When you’re terrified, the Tingler appears on your spine! A squiggly wormy thingum! Only screams will stop it! Eeek! On first release, some theatre seats tingled — thanks to Castle gimmick Percepto. With Vincent Price (the perfect Castle actor), Judith Evelyn and Darryl Hickman.

Zotz! (Castle, 1962). Two Stars. Horror comedy with Tom Poston, a magical coin, Jim Backus and Margaret Dumont.

Extras: Castle‘s gimmicks, come-ons and campy intros are included, whenever possible; Documentary “Spine Tingler: the William Castle Story”; Featurettes; Trailers.

The Barbara Stanwyck Show (Three Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1960-1961 (Archive of American Television, SFM, EI Entertainment)

Movie tough gal supreme Barbara Stanwyck’s half-hour dramatic anthology series lasted only one season, though it did win her an Emmy (over fellow nominees Loretta Young and Donna Reed), for best actress in a dramatic series.

The Double Indemnity killer-babe deserved it. A devotee of strong women‘s roles and one of the reining queens of film noir, Stanwyck put a lot of noirish mini-thrillers and suspensers in her lineup. And she employed some classy noir directors like Out of the Past’s Jacques Tourneur (five times in this anthology), The Beast With Five Fingers’ Robert Florey (twice), and Desert Fury‘s Lewis Allen (once). Other Stanwyck Show helmsmen in a mostly movie-seasoned gallery include Richard Whorf and David Lowell Rich. The visual quality of these tapes is a bit faded, but this mostly forgotten show was pretty damned good. So, of course, was Stanwyck. (All movies U.S. and all except Dear Charlie star Stanwyck. * indicates show of special quality or interest.)

Included: * The Pilot Show (Lewis Allen, 1956). Two and a Half Stars. Old West thriller, with Stanwyck a sheriff’s wife alone with her scarlet-fever-stricken son in the night. With Jeff Morrow and Mort Mills. The Key to the Killer (Richard Whorf, 1960). Three stars. Stanwyck as a modern day sheriff’s wife menaced by hipster-killer Vic Morrow. House in Order (David Lowell Rich, 1960). Two Stars. Stanwyck and her family face mortality. With Shepperd Strudwick. * The Miraculous Journey of Tadpole Chan (Jacques Tourneur, 1960). Three stars. Stanwyck as Hong Kong importer/exporter Josephine Little, a good zesty continuing character. With Ralph Bellamy as a prickly U. S. consul. The Secret of Mrs. Randall (Whorf, 1961). Oil company prez Stanwyck marries ex-con. With Bruce Gordon. Ironbark’s Bride (Tourneur, 1961). Maternal problems in the Old West. With Charles Bickford and Gerald Mohr.

*Out of the Shadows (Robert Florey, 1961). Three Stars. Stanwyck is a psychiatrist menaced by psycho jazz trumpeter (William Stephens). Night Visitor (Don Medford, 1961). Two and a Half Stars. Stanwyck is a rich wife, menaced by blackmailer Julie London. Size 10 (Rich, 1961). Stanwyck is successful dress designer, menaced by stolen design. With Robert (“Animal”) Strauss. *Dear Charlie (Tourneur, 1961). Three and a Half Stars. One of the series’ two best; the other is Confession. (See below.) An Alfred Hitchcock presents kind of wry, dark show, with Milton Berle as a scheming boarder. With Lurene Tuttle. *Dragon By the Tail (Tourneur, 1961). Three Stars. Stanwyck as Josephine Little again, facing intrigue in Hong Kong. With Anna May Wong, James Hong, Philip Ahn and Victor Sen Yung.
The Sisters (Rich, 1961) Stanwyck is a sibling in a triangle. With Michael Rennie and Ellen Drew. Big Career (Whorf, 1961). Stanwyck is business exec with man trouble. With Gene Raymond. *Confession (Tourneur, 1961). Three and a Half Stars. Stanwyck is wife driven to infidelity by jealous husband; Lee Marvin is terrific as her crooked lawyer. Best in the series. In her intro, B. S. compares it to Double Indemnity, which shows how much she likes it. Along the Barbary Coast (Rich, 1961). Stanwyck in Frisco triangle with detective and crook. With Jerome Thor and Robert Armstrong. *Shock (Florey, 1961). Three Stars. Stanwyck is atomic scientist in shock after daughter’s death. With Eduard Franz.

Extras: Stanwyck’s Emmy acceptance speech for show.

– Michael Wilmington
October 27, 2009

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